Mapping & Extending Kindness at Freshest Fruits – Appreciative Inquiry

Jeremy Scrivens from the Emotional Economy at Work is interviewed by Bill Aronson for his new book Wam, Bam, Thank You Mam. This is a book is for business leaders who want to transform the way work is done, to make it more profitable, more loving and more fun. Bill explains how love and compassion will replace efficiency and ruthlessness to deliver competitive advantage over the next decade.

In the introduction to Bill’s book to be published in London mid 2010, Bill writes

“Over the past ten years, businesses have used Lean, Six Sigma, business process engineering and other techniques to drive costs out of a business. They have also succeeded in driving people nuts. Something really important happened two years ago. The percentage of people who loathe their jobs has been rising and the number of people who love their jobs has been falling. Two years ago these lines crossed. If we don’t find a way to reverse that trend then we are truly stuffed.”

About Bill Aronson

Bill Aronson (M.A Cantab) is an expert in modeling organizations. He is the author of five books on the subject including Enterprise Designer – Building a Conscious Organization and the Metastorm ProVision® 6.2 User Guide.

Bill’s passion is to think holistically about organizations and cut through complexity to find simple truths. With this in mind he founded the Enterprise Designer Institute, whose mission is to help organizations make better decisions now by applying a framework and methodology he has tested around the world. Bill is currently in the UK. He can be reached by email at

The Freshest Fruits Story

Jeremy: Freshest Fruits had been in business for three generations, probably forty years. They had grown to be a very successful business in the wholesale fresh vegetable and fruit sector.

Freshest Fruits buy fresh produce from various growers across Australia, including bananas from Queensland. They had become a very successful business because they prided themselves on the quality of their produce and their customer service. They had facilities in all the major city fresh produce markets. In Brisbane, they had grown to forty employees and turned over $30m a year.

I got a call from the chairman of the board of this company who said to me that he was concerned for the Managing Director, Alan. On the outside all the business indicators were healthy. People were investing, the business was growing each year but there were signs that all wasn’t well. Alan was very tired, stressed and quite unable to cope with all that had to be done in running a growing, profitable business. Some of the better sales and wholesale staff were leaving and the managers were on call 24/7 including the Managing Director. The Chairman said to me, “Can you meet with Alan, spend some time with him and see if you can help?”

So I met Alan at a hotel in Brisbane. What was meant to be a half hour conversation turned into four hours. Alan cancelled a couple of meetings once we got going.

Jeremy: Alan, Can I ask you a question? On a scale from 1 to 10 where 1 is very low and 10 is very high, how emotionally engaged are you with the business right now?

Alan: About three but no one has ever asked me that question before.
Jeremy: Tell me Alan about a time when you felt happiest in the business?

Alan: Well, that would be about five or six years ago when we were only half the size and my father was there to help. It was OK then, we seemed to have time to control everything. Then dad retired but the business kept growing. I am making all the decisions now; all the problems get referred to me and I am now coming in seven days a week. I’m exhausted.

Jeremy: What did you like best about that time five years ago?

Alan: Well I had time to do things and they got done quickly. I had time to talk to the customers and think about the strategy. But now all I have time to do is firefight. I have to come in seven days a week and set the dials on the fridges and the cool rooms. I am just tired, exhausted and stressed.

You know what, money isn’t everything; not if it means that I can’t sleep or take time off without worrying about the business.

Jeremy: If you could wave a magic wand what would you change?

Alan: I would like to see people take responsibility on the shop floor. I would like to see people take ownership of their jobs and the customers but this is something I have to do.

Jeremy: So why don’t people do this?

Alan: Because you can’t trust people. They are workers aren’t they? They come in here. I pay them a wage, I pay them money but that’s all they are interested in. They aren’t interested in taking responsibility, they don’t own the business. My dad taught me that you have to stand over people. You have to supervise them. As soon as your back is turned they will do the wrong thing. It happened to me once. I turned my back and someone did the wrong thing and stuffed up the order and we lost a big customer.

Jeremy: What was your response to that?

Alan: I made sure that I was never away and I checked all the orders and dealt with the customers personally. I said to myself I would only trust my family, not my employees, at least only so far.

Jeremy: And I thought to myself, how sad that this is how he sees his people and how costly for the business but what an opportunity!

Jeremy: Look Alan, how important is it to you to get peace of mind, to get your life back and see the business grow?

Alan: It means a lot to me but I don’t see how this can happen?

Jeremy: Do you see your current situation as a problem or as an opportunity, waiting to be discovered?

Alan: it’s a problem, a big problem and it’s getting worse.

Jeremy: If I could show you a way of approaching this problem but it would be different from anything that you have ever done before, would you be interested in hearing more? It will be different but I believe it would work if you embrace it. Are you open to new ideas?

Alan: I am opening to listening to new ideas; I just want my life back.

Jeremy: So, at this point I shared with him the idea, the possibility that that there were people in his team who wanted to contribute, who wanted to make a difference, who could take responsibility for the quality of their work and help take the pressure of Alan.

Jeremy: Alan, imagine if you walked onto the produce floor in six months’ time and everything was working as you imagined it could be in your dreams- what would you see?

Alan: I would see everyone working with happy smiles on their faces. I would see them working as a team. I would see them taking responsibility for the customer. I would see them using their initiative. If they saw something unsafe then they would go and fix it rather than say it’s not my job, that kind of attitude.

Jeremy: Can I suggest to you that the destiny of this business rests as much in the hands of your team as it does in yours, if not more?

Alan: Yes it is all about people, it’s about trusting them but how can you trust them if they are not family; they don’t have the same stake in the business as I do.?

Jeremy: Can I suggest we engage your people in this conversation and see what they have to say? But we do this by asking positive questions about what works for them in the business and in their relationship with you so that we create trust in these conversations. This could lead to some new ideas on how to help solve this problem for you. After all, if things are going to change for the better, your people need to buy into this, don’t they?

Alan: I guess it’s worth a try but I am skeptical. Most of my conversations with the guys are difficult, especially at the moment because we are talking to them about a pay rise and all they seem to want to do is take more from the business without earning it. Anyway, a positive conversation might be a different experience. Yep, we can try. I’m not sure it will do any good but I guess I will try anything right now.

Jeremy: We ended up engaging his team in a series of conversations around the topics that Alan had brought out at the hotel. The way we did that was by using a technique called Appreciative Inquiry. It is a technique of organizational change which involves transforming an organization or relationship from its positive core. You identify what works for that organization from positive stories around big pay offs or peak experiences for owners, staff and customers, find out what sits behind the experiences or outcomes people like and then align the business around this “DNA”.

I asked Alan’s permission to talk with half of the workforce one on one. I asked each of them questions about what works for them at Freshest Fruits, what their peak experiences or happiest times have been and what they want to see more of. I said, “Tell me about a time when you took responsibility? Tell about a time when you felt good about your job? Tell about a time when you showed initiative in your job? What would it take to make you happier and more productive at work?”

One guy told me this story, this amazing story, which I brought back to Alan in a workshop with him and his management team. There were four of them on the management team, including one of his brothers and we went through these stories, these positive stories from the guys on the team. One of the stories went like this.

It was the story when two of Alan’s sales guys on the wholesale floor got a call from a regular customer, a local supermarket, part of a national chain. The supermarket called to say said that they had a serious problem with the delivery of fruit that morning. Apparently, the fruit was a lower quality size and they needed to speak to Alan urgently. The customer was really angry.

The two Freshest Fruit guys, Brian and Mario, looked at each other because Alan wasn’t there that morning to deal with the customer. In fact the whole management team wasn’t there. They had gone off to a secret offsite meeting to discuss how much of a pay rise to give to the team members and they couldn’t be contacted. On that one particular day when this happened there were only the two salesmen on the floor and the supermarket wanted answers fast.

So, it was left to Brian and Mario. They said to each other, “What are we going to do? This is a really important customer. We can’t raise Alan; he’s not on his phone. If we don’t move quickly then we are going to have a very unhappy customer here.”

So they rang the supermarket and said, “We will jump in a car and come and see you and we will sort it. We will fix it. There must be a reason for this.”

When they got there they found that the issue was not with Freshest Fruits but with the supermarket. Their head office was running a special deal on a lower quality range of fruit and someone from head office had gone straight to Alan and placed an order for this fruit. But the local supermarket knew nothing about it and so they got fruit they thought they hadn’t ordered but didn’t receive their regular order.

Before they left Freshest Fruit, Mario and Brian had gone into Alan’s office and found the one off promotion order from the supermarket’s head office and took a copy of this order with them. They also checked with their own team and found that the regular order had not been dispatched. So they loaded up a refrigerated truck and took the usual order with them to the supermarket, just in case the supermarket wanted both orders; the regular one and the one off head office promotion.

As it turned out the supermarket did want both orders and they were delighted with the exceptional service experience they got from Mario and Brian.

That was the first time that anyone from Freshest Fruits had ever gone out to a customer to resolve a problem face to face and respond like this. Not even Alan or his management team had done that because they were always too busy and too focused on firefighting, rather than delighting the customer.

Stephen M Covey has written a book called the Speed of Trust and Covey has come up with this simple but powerful business formula. He says that when trust is low, the speed of business is low and costs are high. This was the scenario when Alan and his management team were trying to manage everything themselves because they didn’t trust their people. But Covey also says that when trust is high, the speed of business is high and costs are low. This was the experience at Freshest Fruits when Brian and Mario decided to delight the customer and were empowered in a de facto way to do this through the absence of the management team. If the latter had been present, Mario and Brian would have hand-balled the customer to a manager with a different outcome from what the customer experienced.

Mario and Brian went beyond the basics; they engaged the customer emotionally, treating them with integrity and respect. The next week, the supermarket customer called Alan to say that they had experienced the best service ever from Freshest Fruits that week and they wanted to renew their standing contract for the next two years. Not only that but they were going to buy a whole new line of fresh produce from Alan’s business.

Strangely, at the time, Alan didn’t see the connection between what Brian and Mario did and the new customer order. But the Appreciative Inquiry conversations identified at least a dozen “high pay off” positive stories like the one involving Mario and Brian. These were stories around when the wholesale service staff had taken responsibility or the opportunity to use their initiative for the customer. It was usually when they were not being supervised. In these stories, team members displayed trust and emotional creativity.

One of the Appreciative Inquiry questions we asked the team members was- what could be done to help you give more to your customer? The guys came back and they said, “We would love Alan to stop coming down from his office and looking over our shoulders and not trusting us. We want Alan to treat us like adults, just to allow us to do our jobs so that he can do his job which is to go out and build the business, not run the floor. We trust him to do that. He’s great at that. He’s not doing it right now. He’s doing our jobs and we want to do our jobs. We are quite capable of doing it.”

One of the team members, Chris, told the story about the time when Chris had become very ill. He had suffered a major kidney failure, losing one of his kidneys and the other was failing fast. He needed a kidney transplant. He had no extra money. He didn’t have private health insurance and he only had a few weeks sick leave. When Alan heard about this he had paid the team member his full salary for three months whilst getting treated. Because of what Alan had done, Chris said to me in our Appreciative Inquiry conversation; “You know what? Alan is the most generous person that I have ever met in my life if he knows you are sick or have a personal problem. If only he would learn how to treat us as adults in the business, we would do anything for him.”

As we were going through these stories I looked across the room and there was Alan. He started to get quite emotional. He said, “I had not realized this, that we have treated these guys as kids. We have not treated them as partners, as adults. The problem isn’t with them. The problem is with me and with us in this room. We think we are the only ones that care about this business and we see our people as hired hands, not partners. Yet these stories tell us that these people care about their work just as much as we care about the business. “This was a turning point in Alan’s worldview and the Freshest Fruits business.

It started a journey of real transformation at Freshest Fruits, based on a new mindset of what really engages people to perform and give of their best. A year later, Alan said, “I have come to learn that people actually are more motivated by what they can give than by what they can get. Yet for years we have engaged our people around what they could get, not what they could give to others through their work. To be honest, we treated some of our customers that way too.

In the twelve months after the initial Appreciative Inquiry stories were shared, Alan began to explore new ways of doing the work, engaging his team to develop a shared vision for the future from the ground floor up. The managers and the wholesale floor team members did this together. Alan restructured the business to free up and empower his people to contribute. Freshest Fruit morphed from a supervisory culture to one where people were coached and supported, not stood over.

The whole team took the Appreciative Inquiry stories and extracted the DNA of Freshest Fruits at its best. From this they built a new vision for outstanding customer engagement.

Freshests Fruit hired professional coaches who recruited for their skills in leadership and people, not their knowledge of wholesale business problem solving and firefighting. In six months the business was turned around to the point where new customers began to come into the facility because they had heard about the happy atmosphere and great service. They wanted to experience this for themselves, to see people with happy faces. In the wholesale produce markets, happy faces and laughter are not something you see much of at five o’clock on a cold winter’s morning.

Two years on, the Brisbane business now has the highest ROI of any of the wholesale fresh produce businesses in the Freshest Fruit facilities across Australia.

The catalyst for change was a transformation in the mindsets of Alan and his managers. Alan began to see that business leadership is about engaging people from the heart as adults and partners. It’s not just Alan, his family and his Board members who want to leave a legacy and make a difference; his team members was to as well; they want to be contributors. Alan learnt that by engaging your team as emotional partners, you create trust and with trust comes creativity and abundance.

One day a few months later, a grower (customer) came onto the wholesale floor and went up to Mario. The grower said, “We are a major grower in Western Australia and we have come into Adelaide to select a wholesaler to take our fruit. We decided to do some mystery shopping in the produce market. We have been to five facilities looking for someone to stop and talk with us and answer our questions but everyone is too busy to spend time with us. We don’t want to do business with any of these people and we are tired of walking around the floors, so have we come to the right place?”

“Of course, you have,” said Mario, and he took the grower around the facility; taking time to show the grower everything he wanted to see. Mario even invited the grower into the lunchroom and offered the grower a cup of coffee from Alan’s personal and cherished cappuccino machine. The grower sat for a while and listened to the banter amongst the Freshest Fruit team members; people were happy, the produce was in great condition, everything was neat and tidy and the facility was full of customers. The experience was different than anything else the grower had seen that morning.

The grower said to Mario, “is your managing director or the owner around?” Mario went and got Alan down from his office. Mario introduced the grower to Alan, whereupon Alan offered to take the grower to lunch, something Alan never had time to do before and Alan took Mario with him; this was also new. Alan and Mario spent lunch and the afternoon with the grower. Two weeks later, Alan got a call from the grower, “how would you like a million dollar contract with us; we don’t want to tender in the market, we want to work with your team because you have something special that we want to be part of.”

That is what it is all about. It is not about the money, it’s about creating conditions in your business where people on the ground floor are liberated to perform and the leaders are released to connect the business with where the world is going. The money comes if you free people up to make a real difference in their work and that difference is the emotional connection between people, their colleagues and their customers.

Later in reflecting on the Appreciative Inquiry process with his team, Alan said

The highlight for me was seeing all of us as Freshest Fruit as a family serving each other, then passing that service on to the customers. The penny dropped for me a few weeks ago when we had a new grower show up one morning unannounced. Because of all the work we were doing in releasing everybody’s natural talents, I was free to spend the whole day with this new potential customer. I realized after we won the business how important it is for me to spend as much time (all my time) at the level I best serve the team. If I had been worrying about where the next pallet of bananas had to go, like I used to, I may have missed the opportunity to get the new business and develop the team. I have also come to the realization that it is the duty of all leaders to empower everyone that they lead, not to hold on to all the knowledge and information and treat others as if they were inferior human beings. Empowering, making the team responsible and accountable, that’s what has given me freedom to now live a fulfilling life, I wasn’t even living before I was just working, eating and sleeping.